Grundrisse (VI): Who are, who are we?

March 26, 2012

Who are the likely loyal supporters of a struggle against the present unjust system in South Africa or anywhere else?

Obviously the answer is, “those who perceive themselves to be suffering under that system”, and “those who perceive that they would gain advantage from a different system”. Unfortunately, the two groups are not identical. Many who feel themselves to be suffering under the system, do not see anything positive about any other system and therefore are either resigned to their fate or committed to working within the system (crime, violence or subservience). And, of course, those who perceive that they would do better under a different system are not necessarily suffering under the present one; the Koch brothers are hardly suffering, yet they sponsored the Tea Party, a pseudo-revolutionary movement devoted to transforming the United States into a much more capital-friendly condition.

So one has to look a little more closely. Who is actually suffering under the system? Who actually wishes to change the system into a more egalitarian system, and how far are they prepared to see that change happen? How committed are such people to changing the system, and how easy would it be to recommit them to the current system?

These are obvious questions and the fact that so few people are asking them is an indication that virtually nobody in a position of authority is genuinely interested in radical change. However, this does not mean that nobody at all is interested. The predicament is that those who want change are, for the most part, weak or completely powerless, and those who don’t want change are strong and empowered, because they have engineered the situation that way.

There are social strata who are the big losers in any society; they are conspicuous in South Africa (or any comparably impoverished state) but all states are currently moving in the South African direction. The lowest stratum, called the “lumpenproletariat” in the old Stalinist analysis or the “underclass” in the neoliberal analysis, is the never-employed unemployed who have often turned to crime to survive. Above them are the “informally employed” who live on the edge of desperation and have much in common with those below them (and the two classes are constantly exchanging membership) and above them are the lowest of the formally employed, the unskilled and temporary workers. All of these groups are potentially desperate enough to be automatic supporters of change.

Above them are the working-class who are steadily employed, sometimes unionised or at least with access to a union, and above them are the middle class. These groups, while not big social winners, are generally those with something to lose from change and therefore nervous of it. But, oddly, these are the bodies most likely to generate those wanting change, and the reason for this is simply that these are relatively well-educated, well-informed and politically conscientised people.

And, of course, this is part of the problem. Well-educated, well-informed and politically conscientised people enter into such a system with the advantage that they know how to make use of the system for their own benefit, and in addition, are better-equipped to make use of the system than those who are from lower class structures. Therefore, these people tend to become leaders of the lower classes — or at least have a better hope of aspiring to become such leaders. So in any system trying to bring about a more egalitarian state of things, the situation begins in a far from egalitarian condition.

The people who the lower classes see taking political action are, predominantly, people in the middle class or the most advantaged section of the working class, who become intellectual commentators, union activists or political agitators. These are also the people with whom the lower classes have to interact when they are trying to make use of the state bureaucracy or gain access to employment or any rights granted to them by corporate structures. In other words, the lower classes tend to see the middle classes under the worst possible political conditions — when the middle classes are trying to manipulate or exploit them, even when this manipulation or exploitation is, supposedly (and very occasionally, even actually) for their own good. For obvious reasons, the lower classes don’t like being bullied or cheated or otherwise jerked about. Meanwhile, the upper class — the people whom everybody serves — is all but invisible to the working class.

So it is far from surprising that the lower classes are not automatically hostile to the upper class or to its interests. For the most part, the upper class doesn’t even get mentioned, except as an ideal to be dreamed about, whose garments and cars and sex lives are represented symbolically in the media (though since the upper class is happy to maintain its privacy in order that nobody can directly attack them, this is normally a purely symbolic representation which has nothing to do with any actual human members of the upper class). The middle class, on the other hand, is right there in the next room to the lower class, noisily enjoying themselves and doing the bidding of the upper class. And the upper parts of the working class are in the same room as the lower class, displaying their advantages and often appearing to despise or mock the rest of their class because they’re all right, Jack.

As a result of this, it is very easy for the upper class to manipulate the lower class into disliking the middle class  — and only a little more difficult for them to manipulate the lower class into disliking those elements of the middle class who claim to be on the lower class’s side. After all, the middle class wants to prevent the lower class from getting into the middle class; therefore, the middle class is obviously the enemy of the lower class, and pretends not to be only in order to fool its victims. It’s safer to assume that every middle-class person is an enemy, because the overwhelming majority of the middle class are. Meanwhile, how do you know that the upper class are the enemy? You don’t see them. You’ve never met them. All that you know of them is generated by media controlled by the upper class, or attacks on them generated by the middle class, who obviously have their own reason for hating them — because they want to become the ruling class.

How can this circle possibly be squared? How can it be possible to organise the lower class in a struggle against the upper class and the bulk of the middle class, when there is such a toxic level of distrust that in many countries the lower class is the wellspring of electoral support for ruling-class parties, along the lines of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists?

There is only one possible solution to this. It is not the hope that some of the working class will automatically recognise their saviours, because they won’t do that automatically, and especially not when their saviours are an illusion. Nor is it the notion that the working class know what they are doing. (Nothing is more obvious than that they don’t.) Nor is it the notion that some nebulous “multitude” along the lines of the fantasies of Hardt and Negri, or an engine of history leading inevitably towards the overthrow of the ruling class, will resolve the problem. The only solution is organisation.

This is depressing. It seems that the whole tendency of the Left in the West throughout the last half-century has been mistaken; the pursuit of revolution through an essentially decentralised, non-hierarchical, non-dogmatic conspiracy of equals. After 1968, the Western Left seemed to conclude that the big mistake had been in excessive organisation, and therefore it fragmented into groupuscules and was distracted by the desire to reform small elements within the broad repressive system — the nominal rights of women, blacks, gays and other minorities whose oppression was temporarily deemed superfluous to the requirements of the control system underpinning the capitalist struggle. A few decades later oppression became more necessary, and gradually these nominal rights, mistakenly thought of as absolute rights, have been rolled back — and, more importantly, their legitimacy has been called into question so that once these nominal rights appear as an obstacle to the transfer of wealth and power from the lower and middle classes to the upper classes, those rights will disappear. And the Western Left has no answer to this, having dismantled its structures as well as its ideology. It becomes increasingly obvious that this was a mistake, and that the chaotic radical, revolutionary or reformist outbursts seen in recent years have failed, very precisely, because they were chaotic — leaderless and lacking in both structure and ideological focus.

In order to mobilise even a part of the classes constituting victims of the present crisis, it will be necessary to set up an organisation with a clear idea of how it wishes to resolve the crisis in a way which serves the interests of those victims. This organisation must indeed be democratic, but democratic within a centralist framework — which sounds scary, but simply means that it can tolerate no bullshit about ways of avoiding having to pursue socialist, worker-friendly, anti-capitalist policies. Anyone who wishes to pursue other policies, anyone who is pursuing a nominally ameliorist programme which is actually intended to subvert the struggle against the system which has generated the present crisis, has to be removed from the organisation. On the other hand, anyone who wishes to know more must be encouraged to remain. The organisation must in part be inspirational and in part educational — and above all it must focus not on power, so much as on honing and disseminating its project for the transformation of society. Thus there must be no compromises at all with the fundamental issues, which means that the organisation needs to distinguish between the fundamental and the trivial, something which most organisations simply cannot manage, now or in the past stretching back to the crisis of Stalinism in the 1950s.

Stalinism failed because it did not work, and it did not work because its core focus was wrong. In the end, holding power in the Soviet Union was not the crucial factor towards liberating the workers worldwide — it wasn’t even crucial towards liberating the workers in the Soviet Union. Worldwide liberation needs to be the focus of any organisation, however small — and a part of liberation means being ready to take power, but the securing and sustaining of power is not everything. Democracy (regulated by ideological understanding) within such an organisation would be the necessary factor curbing the rise of people obsessed with power and concerned only with gaining and holding it — the perversion of Bolshevism which Stalinism represented. But this wasn’t exactly what Lenin wanted, nor is it exactly what Leninism represents — although Leninism is clearly inadequate to guard against Stalinism, which is in some ways inherent in Leninism. That’s undeniable, but to throw out Leninism and the organisational patterns of Marxism is to throw out everything with the remotest chance of working in order to preserve one’s own purity. It is what the Western Left did, and what Trotskyites everywhere continue to do.

It seems simple. We need change. We are up against a very powerful repressive organisation which is self-aware and opposed to change. Therefore, we need to counter this with a very powerful revolutionary organisation. The characteristics of this organisation must appeal to the workers — and above all such an organisation must be honest, so that eventually the workers come to identify their interests with the organisation, after long experience of being betrayed by everyone else. Meaning that such an organisation must be both democratic and clear-sighted with a sound ideological basis and a political practice rooted in experience. Which is what many Marxist organisations set up before they were seized and perverted by Stalinism.

It can be done. The Creator doesn’t see any other way to do it. The people are there. They are ready. It’s the organisation which is lacking, and the leadership which lacks faith in the only way out of the crisis. Until someone sets the process in motion, there is no possibility of success.

Of course, there is no guarantee of success if someone gets going — but there is no harm in trying, not when we contemplate the ghastly future lying around the bends of neoliberal plutocratic tyranny.